Sunday, August 21, 2016

Wagner and Twain: King Arthur in the Late 1800s (Notes:25)

Depiction of scene from Mark Twain's contribution to Arthurian literature.



Diverse examples of Arthuania came into existence in the late nineteenth century. Between Wagner’s stylized German operas and Mark Twain’s anachronistic fantasies, we see the incredible diversity and flexibility of the Arthurian tradition.

Wagner felt that music was the most important of the arts and music was a ‘total piece of art.’ He was well educated and knowable in the Arthurian canon. Wagner, however, came to the Arthurian tradition from the Germanic adaptation of Gotfried and Wolfan. So, Wagner, of course, was heavily interested in the Holy Grail and Tristan legend. Wagner’s text changes the love potion in the Tristan story to a poison; more accurately, Isolde believes that the love potion is a poison which she wants Tristan to drink because she hates him for not loving her back and so she wishes death upon them both. But they do not die as the potion only makes it so that they can confess their feelings. 

Interestingly enough, at the time of the writing of his play, Wagner was himself having an affair with a couple of women.

In Perceval, Wagner placed a great deal of emphasis on philosophy with a great focus on compassion, since he thought that it was this virtue above all others which would save humanity. Because in opera there exists the ‘light motif,’ which is a passage or theme associated with a particular character, scene, or idea and communicates an idea of the opera before the characters themselves even know it, Wagner promoted interconnected ideals of sociality, specifically Germany, as always-already existing.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Mark Twain was launching his own Arthurian engagement but his was one which focused on critique instead of elevation; Twain ultimately argued that the legend was inextricable from England and Germany’s social reality. Twain’s background at the time of writing his A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is important since this was during his later years where he was an ardent anti-imperialist. And so his text is, necessarily, filled with brutal attacks and intellectual critiques of the status quo in all forms, whether it be governmentality, slavery, or rebellion.

The plot of Twain’s tale is that a 19th century man is transported through time back to King Arthur’s day in the sixth century, and he must use his ‘Yankee ingenuity’ in order prevent being burned at the stake and to raise through the ranks of feudal society. At the end, however, he convinces King Arthur that he is a wizard and sets out to remake the land into a version of 19th century America, usually through humorous sketches in the early parts of the novel. Twain’s work, in this regard, was building on Malory’s text; he wondered what would Malory’s text look like if all the trappings of Romance had been stripped away? Whole-sale critique of all things anti-and-pro American and Americana and European elitism.